Tainted animal feed. Spinach scares. Peanut butter recalls. Food safety has been big news lately, which is making many people think twice about what’s on their plates.
First, the facts. The FDA says some U.S. hogs, poultry, and farmed fish recently ate animal feed containing Chinese ingredients tainted with an industrial chemical called melamine. But the FDA says people who ate meat from those animals are likely at “very low” risk of melamine-related health problems.
The source of the salmonella outbreak in Peter Pan and Great Value peanut butter has been found, and maker ConAgra plans to start shipping Peter Pan Peanut Butter to retailers this summer. And Last fall’s E. coli outbreak in fresh bagged spinach is over.
Despite the spate of food safety snafus, America’s food safety system works, says CDC senior epidemiologist Linda Demma, PhD.
“I certainly don’t think it’s broken. I think we can improve, but I don’t think it’s broken,” says Demma, who works in the enteric disease epidemiology branch of the CDC’s division of foodborne, bacterial, and mycotic diseases.
“All the food safety agencies are working very hard to collaborate and come up with some ideas on how to improve the meat and produce industry as a whole,” Demma says, adding that food industries “are being very cooperative.”
In light of food safety issues, the FDA recently created a new FDA job — assistant commissioner for food protection — and appointed David Acheson, MD, FRCP, to fill that post. Earlier this year, the FDA issued new guidelines for the fresh-cut produce industry, which market packaged, minimally processed fresh fruits and vegetables.
While food safety controls are being tweaked, here are 15 tips on making your food safer, from the market to the table.
1. Consider your source. Eating locally grown food is becoming more popular, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safer than supermarket produce.
“Just because you grow it in a farm down the street, it doesn’t make it any safer or worse than any other produce that you get,” says Suresh Pillai, PhD. Â Pillai is a professor of food safety and environmental microbiology at Texas A&M University.
Locally grown food “is pretty much on par with what you would find in a supermarket,” in terms of food safety, Demma agrees. “Of course, there [are] other reasons to buy and eat locally,” she says.
At farmers markets, you may get the chance to meet and talk with the people who produced your food. Â Farmers markets have become more common, with 4,385 U.S. farmers markets in 2006, up from 1,755 farmers markets in 1994, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Eating food shipped from overseas? The melamine-tainted animal feed ingredients came from China. But that doesn’t mean that all imported food is suspect.
“The assumption that the imported products are unsafe is absolutely not true,” Pillai says. “In fact, there are as many outbreaks associated with foods grown in the United States. So blaming it on imported products, I think, is a cop-out.”
2. Map your supermarket route. Don’t cruise the store aisles aimlessly. Gather nonperishable items first, fresh or frozen goods last. That strategy minimizes the time that perishable goods sit in your shopping cart instead of in a freezer or refrigerator.
3. Be choosy. Select fresh produce that isn’t bruised or damaged. Check that eggs aren’t cracked. Look for a clean meat or fish counter and a clean salad bar. Don’t buy bulging or dented cans, cracked jars, or jars with loose or bulging lids. If fresh-cut produce (such as half a watermelon or bagged salad mixes) is on your shopping list, choose those that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
4. Pack it up. At the grocery store, bag fresh fruits and vegetables separately from meat, poultry, and seafood products.
Bring an ice chest to keep frozen or perishable items if it will take more than an hour to get those items home. Â No ice chest? If it’s hot outside, put the groceries in the air-conditioned passenger area of your car instead of putting them in the trunk, which may not have air-conditioning.
5. Keep your kitchen clean. Wash your cutting boards, countertops, refrigerator, pots, and utensils regularly in hot, soapy water, especially after they’ve been in contact with raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
6. Check your cutting boards. They shouldn’t have lots of cracks and crevices where bacteria can lurk.
7. Sanitize. The FDA recommends periodically sanitizing your cutting boards, countertops, and kitchen sink drain with a homemade mixture of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach to one quart of water.
Sponges and dishcloths can house bacteria, so wash them weekly in hot water in the washing machine.
8. Store your food properly. Refrigerate frozen and perishable items as soon as possible.
Don’t store foods near household chemicals or cleaning products. Some produce — like onions and potatoes — don’t need to go in the refrigerator, but don’t store them under the sink, where they could be damaged by leaky pipes.
9. Check the refrigerator and freezer temperature. Set the refrigerator temperature to 40 degrees Fahrenheit, set the freezer to zero degrees Fahrenheit. Â Use a refrigerator thermometer to check those temperatures periodically.
10. Wash your hands. Before you handle food, lather up with soap and hot water, washing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Repeat after handling produce, meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.
11. Wash fruits and vegetables in running water. A small scrub brush may help, but don’t use soap or other detergents to wash produce.
What about produce washes? “All of these solutions and washes may have some applications but studies show that washing with water is as safe as anything else,” says Pillai, who calls water the “most effective, the safest, and the cheapest” way to wash produce.
12. Thaw foods in the refrigerator, not on the countertop. It may take longer, but it’s safer.
13. Cook foods thoroughly. Use a meat thermometer to make sure meat is fully cooked. Never put cooked meats on an unwashed plate or platter that has held raw meat.
14. Store leftovers safely. Refrigerate leftovers in tight containers as soon as possible and use them within three days. When in doubt, throw it out.
15. Maintain perspective. “There’s no such thing as a zero risk,” says Pillai. “There’s no such thing as a sterile product.”
Everyone in the U.S. should get more education about food safety “so the responsibilities are being spread all across from the proverbial farm to fork,” says Pillai.
While you can’t control everything that affects your food, “you should not lose a sense of reality,” says Pillai. “I still believe that we have one of the safest supplies of food in the world.”
SOURCES: WebMD Medical News: “Tainted Animal Feed May Be in Fish.” WebMD Medical News: “Peanut Butter Salmonella Source Found.” WebMD Medical News: “E. coli Spinach Outbreak Hard to Trace.” Linda Demma, PhD, senior epidemiologist, Enteric Disease Epidemiology Branch, Division of Foodborne, Bacterial, and Mycotic Diseases, CDC, Atlanta. Suresh Pillai, PhD, Professor of Food Safety and Environmental Microbiology, Chairman of the Biotechnology Program, and Director of the National Center for Electron Beam Food Research, Texas A&M University. U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Farmers Market Growth.” FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Nutrition: “Consumer Advice and Publications on Food Safety, Nutrition, and Cosmetics.” National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse: “Bacterial and Foodborne Illness.”